AFC East offseason exit interview: 3 good things, 3 bad things for each team
Tom Brady may be out the first four games but the Bills, Dolphins and Jets are still chasing the Pats
The roster-building portion of the NFL offseason is all but over. Your favorite team's lineup is pretty much set, with the big names in free agency all snatched up and the 2016 NFL Draft in the books.
How did your favorite team do addressing its biggest needs heading into May and June OTAs? We're taking a team-by-team look with offseason exit interviews for each division. Next up: The AFC East.
1. They have plenty of offensive weapons
You can argue that the Bills gave up too much to land Sammy Watkins, but he ranked 9th among all wideouts in Football Outsiders' efficiency metric in 2015, despite missing three games (60 receptions, 1,047 yards, 9 TDs). The thinking is that he'll be even better in 2016 after playing with quarterback Tyrod Taylor for a full season. There's also LeSean McCoy who, despite missing four games, still ranked 7th among all running backs in efficiency (895 yards, 4.4 YPC, 32 receptions, 292 yards, 5 total TDs). Tight end Charles Clay is coming off a disappointing first season in Buffalo (51 receptions, 528 yards, 3 TDs) but he can be a difference maker. And then there's Taylor, who signed a modest deal to join the Bills and not only won the starting job, but surpassed everyone's expectations in the process (3,035 yards, 63.7 completion percentage, 20 TDs, 6 INTs, 568 rushing yards, 4 rushing TDs). The offense ranked 9th overall last season and there's no reason to expect that to change in 2016, partly because of the aforementioned playmakers, but also due to that offensive line. Which reminds us...
2. They kept two key cogs in very good offensive line
Instead of losing both Richie Incognito and Cordy Glenn to free agency, the Bills re-signed both, which means one of the most dominant left guard-left tackle combos will remain in Buffalo for the foreseeable future. A year ago, the Bills were catching hell for giving Incognito another chance, but it paid off in 2015. Now he's signed for the next three years, and Glenn inked a five-year deal. Questions remain about the right side of the line but the Bills also signed center Fernando Velasco, an underrated veteran journeyman who solidifies the middle of the unit.
3. They addressed the front-seven needs
On paper, first-round pick Shaq Lawson was a steal. And second-rounder Reggie Ragland was thought to be the only inside linebacker with a first-round grade. And third-round defensive tackle Adolphus Washington could contribute immediately. The infusion of youth comes on the heels of letting Mario Williams, Alex Carrington and Nigel Bradham walk during free agency. And while the moves were all expected, the lack of depth was a concern heading into draft. On paper, things couldn't have gone better. Whether reality mirrors that in the coming months and years is another matter.
1. Two Ryans are probably worse than one
Rex Ryan has been known to let his mouth get ahead of his brain when it comes to making grand proclamations that he can't back up. To his credit, he was more cautious with his words in Year 1 in Buffalo than he was during his rocky tenure with the Jets, but that all changed when he hired twin brother Rob Ryan this offseason. Rob, who is an average-at-best defensive coordinator, is already blaming his previous employer for his failings -- and announcing his grand plans to take down the Patriots.
Worth noting: The Bills last made the playoffs in 1999; the last thing they need is more distractions. Also worth noting: The Ryans are known for fielding great defensive teams. Rob's underachievements have already been noted and Rex's unit ranked 24th last season, according to Football Outsiders.
2. They don't seem sold on Tyrod Taylor
Taylor had an impressive first season in Buffalo, but general manager Doug Whaley didn't seem sold on him in the weeks leading up to the 2016 draft. The Bills eventually selected Cardale Jones in the fourth round, though he's more of a long-term project than short-term solution. That leaves former first-rounder EJ Manuel, who seems to be an afterthought at this point, and Taylor, who is currently the lowest-paid NFL starting quarterback -- and understandably, is angling for a new contract.
3. They could be without Shaq Lawson for a while
On paper, first-round defensive end Shaq Lawson was a no-brainer pick. In reality, recent shoulder surgery could sideline him for 4-6 months, which does nothing to bolster a front seven desperately in need of bolstering. The plan was for him to replace departed Mario Williams, but that will have to wait. The good news is that the Bills still were able to upgrade the front seven this offseason. The bad news -- in addition to Lawson's prolonged absence -- is that Buffalo gave up two fourth-round picks to move up for linebacker Reggie Ragland. Yes, Ryan loved the former Alabama star, but it was a high price to pay on a team that is perpetually chasing the Patriots.
1. They hired Adam Gase, quarterback whisperer
If anybody can fix Ryan Tannehill, it's Adam Gase. The 38-year-old first-time head coach arrives in Miami after working (relative) wonders with Tim Tebow in Denver, and then getting the most out of Jay Cutler in Chicago last season. Now he's tasked with getting perennial underachiever Ryan Tannehill on track. Last season, Tannehill was in the bottom third of NFL starters, according to Football Outsiders, behind the likes of Josh McCown, Sam Bradford and Blake Bortles. That doesn't exactly scream elite." If Gase can change that, the Dolphins, a six-win outfit in 2015, could make up some ground on the Bills and Jets in the AFC East. If Gase can't fix Tannehill, Miami will almost certainly be in the market for their next franchise quarterback during the 2016 offseason.
2. They landed the best offensive lineman in the draft
Based on the sheer ridiculousness of the details surrounding Laremy Tunsil's draft-day slide, no one could have predicted that he'd be on the board when the Dolphins went on the clock with the 13th-overall pick. Yet there Tunsil was, and the team wasted little time in adding him to an offensive line in desperate need of a big-time talent. Of course, questions remain about Tunsil's "character" in light of the "using a gas-mask to get high" video that showed up on social media minutes before the start of the draft. That said, it's not like Tunsil's the only player in NFL history to ever smoke marijuana -- more than that, the Dolphins sounded sufficiently satisfied to draft him. And if his addition to the O-line makes life easier for Tannehill and Miami's running game, it's unquestionably the right move.
3. They improved the roster with smart free-agent signings
A year ago, the Dolphins mortgaged the future to sign defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh. The six-year, $114 million contract seemed like a terrible deal at the time and nothing that happened during the 2015 season has done anything to change our minds. But this offseason, the Dolphins bolstered the roster with cheap contracts, which, in addition to having a franchise quarterback, is how you build a playoff team. The new faces include offensive linemen Jermon Bushrod and Kraig Urbik, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and defensive ends Andre Branch and Jason Jones. Of course, there were missteps too, which brings us to Mario Williams ...
1. They lost Olivier Vernon and replaced him with Mario Williams
Vernon was one of the NFL's best young pass rushers. The Dolphins knew this, which is why they used the transition tag on the 25-year-old. But the team inexplicably rescinded the tag, which opened the door for the Giants to sign him to a five-year, $85 million deal. We get that the Dolphins didn't want to devote so much salary-cap space to Suh and Vernon, but that leads us to two conclusions: Don't sign Suh to that ridiculous deal in the first place. And don't compound things by trying to replace Vernon with Mario Williams, the man who reportedly "checked out" in Buffalo when he wasn't happy with his role. Instead, the Dolphins signed Williams to a two-year deal that will reportedly pay him $8 million a season. That's the definition of excessive. Just to reiterate the point: Williams was ProFootballFocus' lowest-graded edge rusher last season.
2. They traded for Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell
Yes, the Dolphins landed Tunsil at No. 13, but they were originally set to pick 8th overall before a pre-draft trade with the Eagles. Philly got the No. 8 pick and Miami got the No. 13 pick and linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell. On paper, it's not a terrible deal for the Dolphins, who have plenty of needs on defense. And while Alonso is still on his rookie contract and won't cost much, Maxwell is a different animal entirely. He was solid in Seattle, but something much less than that with the Eagles in 2015, an issue exacerbated by the $13.5 million in guaranteed money remaining on his current deal. Given the secondary's struggles in pass coverage, it's hard to imagine how Maxwell (and his burdensome contract) makes things better.
3. They gave Cameron Wake a two-year extension
Cameron Wake is a great story -- the former Penn St. player couldn't stick on an NFL roster so he went to Canada to hone his game. After several dominating seasons, he earned his way back into the NFL -- where he continued to dominate. He has 70 sacks in seven seasons, including a career-high 15 in 2012. But he played in just seven games last season after rupturing his Achilles tendon (upside: He still had 7 sacks and 4 forced fumbles), and at 34, Wake is almost certainly on the downside of a great career. But instead of letting him walk and focusing on younger players, the team instead signed Wake to a two-year extension that reportedly includes $10 million in guarantees.
New England Patriots
1. They traded for Martellus Bennett
Another case of the rich getting richer. The last time the Patriots had two game-changing tight ends was when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez played together. The Gronk-Bennett duo brings similar matchup problems for opposing defenses, one that Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will take full advantage of. And while Bennett is known for his mercurial disposition, history suggests that he'll thrive in New England playing for Bill Belichick. Bennett's addition also lessens the importance on finding a legit No. 2 receiver, something the Pats have struggled to do for a few seasons.
2. The offensive line should be better
The Patriots shipped pass rusher Chandler Jones to Arizona in exchange for former first-round pick Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick. Cooper broke his leg early during his rookie season and never met expectations with the Cardinals. But as we mentioned with Bennett, New England can be a rehabilitative proving ground for players, and that's the hope with Cooper, who will have the luxury of working with one of the NFL's best offensive line coaches, Dante Scarnecchia. Additionally, with the return of offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, along with the continued development of young center Bryan Stork, this unit should be much better than the one that was manhandled by the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
3. They play in the AFC East
Whatever happens, the reality is that as long as Belichick and Brady are around for most of the games, the Pats remain the favorites in a decidedly weak division. Yes, the Jets improved under Todd Bowles, but they are currently without a quarterback. And in Buffalo, the Ryans -- Rex and Rob -- have shown no signs of having figured out how to build a winner, much less compete with the Patriots, who are undoubtedly in their heads. Perhaps the Dolphins are the dark-horse candidates to make some noise; they have a new coach in Adam Gase, but questions remain about quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and whether this defense can play consistently from one week to the next. The shorter version: Even if Brady misses the first month of the season, the Pats remain prohibitive favorites.
1. Tom Brady looks like he'll miss the first 4 games
Yes, we know, New England would be favored to win the division even if they started Tim Tebow while Brady served his Deflategate suspension, but this isn't about that. This is about the possibility of heading into October with three (or, god forbid, more) losses, and the subsequent playoff implications. If the Pats have one of the two best records in the AFC, they get a first-round playoff bye. If they don't, they're playing in the wild-card game, and then will likely have to hit the road. The good news is that their first four regular-season games are against the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans and Bills, so 2-2 is a real possibility and 3-1 isn't out of the question, even with Brady watching the game from home in his Uggs.
2. They traded Chandler Jones
We understand why the Patriots shipped Chandler Jones to the Valley of the Sun -- he had a bizarre off-field incident and, more importantly, was due $7.8 million in 2016, the final year of his rookie contract. Instead of paying Jones and then possibly losing him after the season, the Pats instead swung a deal for Cooper and a second-round pick. But the move also leaves a gaping hole at pass rusher, one New England is hoping 31-year-old Chris Long can help fill. The problem: Long, a former first-rounder, has battled injuries in recent seasons and has just four sacks in 11 games the last two seasons. But Long won't be tasked with making up for Jones' production all by himself; Jabaal Sheard, one of the most underrated signings a year ago, will get more opportunities, as will 2015 fourth-rounder Trey Flowers.
3. They still don't have an established No. 2 WR
It's not from lack of trying, either. Julian Edelman is the unquestioned No. 1 but after that it's unclear who's next. Danny Amendola hasn't come close to becoming the "next Wes Welker," and the Patriots signed veterans Nate Washington and Chris Hogan on the off chance that they can provide something in the passing game. This comes a year after Brandon LaFell failed to do much, and two years after youngsters Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins struggled to claim the job. The Patriots were reportedly outbid for Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, which would have made this offense almost unstoppable. The good news is that the addition of Bennett will creat plenty of headaches for opponents, even if Brady doesn't have an established receiver behind Edelman.
New York Jets
1. The defense should be very good
The Jets finished the 2015 season with the fifth-best defense, according to Football Outsiders, behind only the Broncos, Carolina, Arizona and Seattle (all playoff teams, incidentally). And now, after a draft that included inside linebacker Darron Lee in the first round and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins in Round 3, there's every reason to think this unit will be just as dominating in 2016. Lee, who has been compared to Ryan Shazier, will be penciled into a starting lineup that includes Muhammed Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson along the defensive line, veteran David Harris at linebacker, and Darrelle Revis and Calvin Pryor in the secondary.
2. They traded for left tackle Ryan Clady
D'brickashaw Ferguson retired unexpectedly this offseason after a solid 10-year career in which he missed one snap. But the Jets acted quickly to find his replacement in Ryan Clady, a former Broncos first-round pick who has struggled with injuries in recent years. Still, when healthy, Clady can be dominating. Added bonus: Clady's deal is team-friendly; he'll reportedly make $6 million in 2016 and the Jets hold an option for 2017 to pay him $10 million. If Clady can stay on the field, he would be a slight upgrade over Ferguson.
3. The offense, on paper, could be good too.
In addition to Clady, the Jets signed Matt Forte. And while it's risky to sign running backs on the wrong side of 30, Forte ranked 2nd among all backs last season, behind only Thomas Rawls of the Seahawks. He'll join an offense that includes wideouts Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and former second-rounder Devin Smith and former second-round tight end Jace Amaro. Of course, there's the looming issue of who will be throwing passes to these players, which brings us to the biggest issue facing the Jets ...
1. They don't have a quarterback
We applaud Ryan Fitzpatrick not taking the Jets' low-ball deal (relatively speaking, anyway; the team initially offered Fitzy $8 million annually, and recently upped it to $12 million in the first year). And we also tip our hat to the Jets for not overpaying for what is basically a replacement-level quarterback who benefited from a few playmakers and a very good defense. The problem is that training camps aren't far off and as it stands, Fitzpatrick -- even a grossly overpaid one -- is better than the alternatives, which currently include Geno Smith, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. Of course, it doesn't matter who's under center; the Patriots are winning the division, but the Jets were just one game away from earning a wild-card spot, something that becomes infinitely more difficult without a quarterback.
2. They drafted Christian Hackenberg
If you subscribe to the theory that a team should just keep drafting quarterbacks until they find the right one, then using a second-rounder on Christian Hackenberg makes sense. Otherwise, the Jets would've been better off filling other roster needs, especially since the team used a fourth-round pick on Bryce Petty a year ago. For what it's worth, the Hackenberg selection went over horribly in New York, even by Jets' fans standards, and this is the same outfit that used a second-round pick on Geno Smith.
3. They haven't resolved the Muhammad Wilkerson situation
The Jets used the franchise tag on Muhammad Wilkerson, which means he'll be in New York for at least one more season -- except that Wilkerson, who is one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in football, is looking for a long-term deal commiserate with his production. As it stands, Wilkerson hasn't signed his tender (he stands to make $15.4 million in '16), and the two sides remain at an impasse. The Jets reportedly tried to trade Wilkerson before the draft, but nothing materialized, and now that he's technically not under contract, he can hold out without facing daily fines from the team for missing mandatory workouts.
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